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A Time For Everything

Over the past few days, I’ve been working with my admin colleagues on creating the timetable for our High School for the next school year. I’ve gone through this process before at smaller schools so working on this at a large High School was really eye opening. We are a large high school offering many sections of different courses. But, we aren’t large enough for automated scheduling systems to be effective. So, much of the work was done by “hand.” But the entire process has left me thinking about schedules in general.

Timetables have been a component of formalized schooling for as long as formalized schools have existed. Some would argue that the timetable was a reflection of the workforce the students would join upon completion of their formal schooling. This may be the case but I would suggest a more simple reason timetables exist – order. It would be very difficult to organize hundreds of students and staff without some kind of schedule. Of course this goes further in many jurisdictions where education funding is tied to instructional hours, which timetables help to achieve. But, for those of us looking to change education, should we not look to the timetable as a method to elicit change.

I am honest in my perspective about education – I see myself in the progressive camp most days. As such, I look for ways we can organize our schools and classrooms differently than in the past, and ensure we meet the needs of the students and promote their academic and social success. As such, it would seem to me the timetable would be a place to look at for changes. I would argue that, historically (and probably currently), timetables were created to meet the needs of the adults in the building, not the students. Administrators create timetables which meet the requested needs of teaching staff and then fit students into the blocks. What if we looked at that differently? Can students design the timetable? I’m not sure if that is completely possible but I do think they can have a role.

If teachers, students, and administrators looked at times where students felt more successful in certain classes, perhaps we could construct the timetable to reflect those situations. For example, when I taught Grade 12 English right after lunch, many of my students had difficulty focusing. So, I asked them why. They told me they were tired after eating lunch – now, something could be said about teenage choices for lunch, but that’s another post. They often requested that they have P.E. or some other more active course rather than a difficult academic offering. So, if we looked across the board at courses and gathered data about times when the majority of our students were successful, perhaps we could use the timetable to capitalize on this.

Another consideration that I would like to see more of is blended and online learning incorporated into the timetable. Our students in High School have a flex period which would be perfect for this to take place. Students could take courses through Alberta Distance Learning or other locally developed online courses during this period. In that way, we could provide more opportunities for our students and promote flexibility in their schedule.

This seems like a pretty mundane topic but, after five days of creating a timetable, it is on my mind! I would really like to hear other perspectives of timetabling and thoughts on how it can positively, or negatively, impact learning.

Have a great Friday everyone!

Sean

The Journey

I titled this blog “The Journey is the Goal” as I believe this axiom to be true. So often we focus on an end goal rather than enjoying the path that takes us there. I see this to be true in the classroom as well as the highway.

Yesterday, I accepted an opportunity which will take me on another part of my journey. I will be a Vice Principal in Brooks Composite High School next school year.

When I was a full time classroom teacher, I liked to discuss the concept of the journey with my students. When teaching English, we looked at the themes and messages surrounding the journey. We talked about classical representations of the journey in literature. In Social Studies, we discussed the journey of humanity and the various paths people and nations have taken throughout time.

Journeys are a part of human existence – one could argue, I suppose, that journeys are a component of all life on earth. What I find interesting is how I feel when embarking upon a new journey. I always find myself filled with both excitement and nerves. I am excited about what this new journey will bring. However, I am not naive and understand too that there will be challenges. But that is what makes the journey so important – the challenges.

I do not believe that the end goal of a journey is necessarily a destination. I am uncertain as to what the destination will be on this next journey. In fact, I am uncertain if there actually is a final destination. What I am certain about is that I will learn a great deal while I travel this road. And perhaps, that will help make me a better teacher and person.

All the best,

Sean

I Love You To The Moon

Over the past few days, I have been witness to a great deal of ugliness, hatred, and ignorance. I have seen adults refer to LGBTQ kids as evil, shameful, mentally ill, and worse. I am saddened and angered by all of this. I wasn’t sure how to express all of this, so I wrote my boys, Patrick (13) and Andrew (5) a letter. I will share it with both of them.

Dear Boys,

Over the last few days, I have seen some horrible things said about children in our province. Most of these things were said by adults, many who are scared but don’t really know how to say so. It has left me feeling very sad. But, I want you both to know something: I Love You!

At 5 and 13 you have so much yet to learn and so many questions to ask, but you need never question whether I love you – that is without question. More than that, I will love always love you. If you come to me and say to me “Dad, I’m gay,” I will tell you I love you. If you come to me and say to me “Dad, want to live my life as a girl because that is who I truly am,” I will tell you I love you. You will never have to wonder about that.

My job as a parent would not be to question whether you are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. My job would not be curing you of some affliction, because, you would not be sick. My job would be, as it always has been, to love you and keep you safe.

I will be honest with you and tell you that it might take me some time to adjust to what you told me. But, that is about me and not about you. And no matter how long that takes, you will always have my love, protection, and support. You must also know that I will fight tirelessly for you, as I always have, to ensure you have the same rights and opportunities as other people.  I will be in your corner. I will be your defender, supporter, and advocate. I will never shame you, bully you, or call you names. I must be honest, other people might. But that is all about them and their issues, not about you.

Boys, I don’t care if you are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. All I want for you both is to be happy and safe. And, to eat your broccoli.

All my love now and always,

Dad

The Balance

Sometime ago, I was told “balance” is a weasel word when I used it to describe both my orientation to teaching and learning and my practice in the classroom. I don’t really worry about being called names by anonymous Twitter folks, but what struck me is the negativity that suggesting teachers use a balanced approach to teaching and learning received.

More recently, I was “called out” again on this position and was told that it was responsible for reduced scores on international standardized tests. Further, some individuals suggest that the position is dangerous as it promotes and, in fact, exacerbates the divide between wealthy students and those in poverty.

Many of those who question my position advocate for teachers using scripted, Direct Instruction lessons, which are supposedly rigorously tested to ensure consistent teaching results time after time. As I have never used such lessons, I cannot attest to the veracity of that claim.

Finally, some commentators on social media, who have little to no experience in a K-12 classroom, suggest that saying we are “student centred” is a euphemistic way of casting off responsibility for educating our students.

I have said many times throughout my career as a classroom teacher and administrator, that many individuals should have a voice in how education is conducted in our schools. But, that doesn’t mean they should shape teaching and learning in our classrooms. Honestly, that is the job of the professional teacher in the room. Sometimes those teachers should use direct instruction – I don’t think they should ever use pre-scripted lesson plans but that is my opinion – and sometimes they should use other pedagogical approaches. Teachers should incorporate technology into their lessons where it is appropriate but it should never be used as a babysitter. Teachers should stay on top of professional research and adopt an orientation as a continual learner. However, they should be very cautious of accepting advice from those who have not actually taught in a K-12 classroom.

Some people would like teaching and learning to be boiled down to an exact science whereby results are replicable across all learning situations. I don’t believe that is a possibility. Teaching is not an exact science – I would argue it is more of an artform. The truly master teachers will have an understanding of the science of teaching and learning, and be artful in their craft knowing when and which approach to use.

But, those are just my thoughts.

Have a great day,

Sean

When is a Teacher not a Teacher

I no longer teach everyday – what am I?

That is the riddle I’ve been thinking about for a while. I am no longer in a classroom full time. Can I call myself a teacher? I still teach. Actually, I spend a lot of time in classrooms working with students from grade 1 through 12. But, do I get to still call myself a teacher?

A while ago, someone online told me that I was no longer a teacher in the true sense of the word. That got me thinking about what the true sense of the word teacher is. If you want to conduct an interesting social experiment, ask people to define “teacher.”

In Alberta, there is a legal definition of a teacher – a person who holds a valid teaching certificate. In order to obtain this certificate, you must hold a teaching degree and meet the requirements of the Teaching Quality Standard. I have such a certificate. However, if you asked me where it is in my house, I couldn’t tell you. But, trust me, I have one. So, step one taken care of. But am I a teacher.

When I asked people to tell me how they define the word “teacher,” many said: someone who works with kids. That’s a pretty broad definition but, that still describes me. I work with kids a lot. Another definition included: “works in a school.” Again, fairly general but I do work in a school. Actually, I work in 13 schools which is great. A further definition: “teaches kids stuff.” Not the most articulate, but I get it. Teachers are responsible for promoting learning in their classroom. Again, I meet this criteria. I teach students how to utilize digital resources so as to promote their learning and, hopefully, make their lives a bit easier. But am I a teacher?

 

Removing the Wings

When we remove the wings from airplanes, we render them incapable of flying. In the case of teaching and learning, in order to fly, we need to remove the wings.

The Spectrum

As a Social Studies teacher, I spent many lessons going over the political spectrum and the core features of the left and right wing with my students. Generally, ideologies which are right of centre value tradition and the status quo. These ideologies value individualism and limited government intervention in the lives of the people. As well, equality of opportunity where every individual has the opportunity to succeed without the help of the government, is a key feature. In addition, competition plays a key role in these ideologies.

Ideologies to the left of centre are often viewed as progressive due to their desire to see change to society. These ideologies value equality of condition where the government plays a larger role in society to ensure the needs of the populace are met. Consequently, these ideologies value collective responsibility. That is not to say that individualism and competition are absent left of centre. It does mean, however, that government structures are used to promote the greater good.

The Wings in Education

What I find interesting about this is how the left win and right wing find their way into discussions about teaching and learning. As I see it, individuals who hold a more right of centre view about education value traditional teaching methodologies and want to see little change to the system. In addition, they value a system built on competition and individualism, where the role of teachers and schools is to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed without specialized supports (think equality of opportunity).

Individuals who approach teaching and learning from a left of centre approach value collaboration over competition. THey want to see the education system change and move away from traditional teaching practice. There is also a desire to ensure all students have what they need to be successful by providing individual supports (equality of condition).

The Middle Ground

It is time we remove the political spectrum and the wings from teaching and learning. We need to focus on what is best for the students we have in our classrooms. On some days for some students traditional, explicit instruction approaches may work best. At other times, more progressive non traditional methods may be the best approach. But this decision should be left to the teacher in the room. They know their students and what they need.

The debate raging about traditional vs. progressive teaching and learning draws attention away from the real issue which is the student. I can quote research to support both progressive or traditional teaching practices but that isn’t the point. The point is, education leaders and teacher educators need to ensure teachers understand both sides so they can best meet the needs of the kids in their rooms. After all, we are all in this together.

Have a great day,

The War of the Worlds

Without a doubt, the past week on Twitter has been one of the most interesting I have been a part of since joining in 2009. I have always said that Twitter is an excellent source of professional development if you allow it to be. That was definitely the case this past week.

Some Background

Two weeks ago, a fax circulated around Alberta schools. I wrote about it when it was released. Among other things, it invited people to participate in a forum on math and curriculum to be held on May 29 at the University of Alberta. The organizers brought in number of speakers including both local and out of province mathematicians and former, educators. One expert invited to speak was Robert Craigen. This all coincided with the release of a CD Howe report written by Anna Stokke titled: What to do with Canada’s Declining Math Scores (http://www.cdhowe.org/pdf/commentary_427.pdf). Finally, the CBC Radio program Cross Country Checkup had the author of the CD Howe Report on with other guests to discuss math in Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/checkup/is-there-something-wrong-with-the-way-math-is-being-taught-1.3093910).

Tieing It Together

All of these pieces came together on Twitter as the various voices in the debate began airing their views and staking their claims. What ensued was a week’s worth of points and counterpoints related to the teaching of math, not only in Alberta or Canada, but around the world. I won’t go through and list of the tweets as there are many. But some of the voices involved were: Dan Myer (@ddmeyer), Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), John Golden (@mathhombre), Anna Stokke (@rastokke), Robert Craigen (@rcraigen), and David Coffey (@delta_dc).

I became involved when I asked Robert Craigen a question about one of his tweets. That resulted in quite a lengthy exchange between the two of us, which consisted of me mostly trying to gain a better understanding of Dr. Craigen’s position and Dr. Craigen patiently answering my questions. Dr. Craigen’s position is that all students in Canadian schools should memorize a canon of mathematical knowledge consisting of standard algorithms. According to Dr. Craigen, these algorithms should be learned in a very sequential way with little deviation and should be memorized by the students so they are able to recall them quickly when needed. The argument here is that through memorization, the cognitive load required by the students is reduced because they do not need to spend intellectual horsepower on remembering the algorithm. Dr. Craigen’s contention is that “normal” (his word) students, without impairments will be able to do this. He points to Jump Math as an example of a program that teachers could employ to achieve this goal.

What is interesting to me about this, is not all mathematics education professors agree with Dr. Craigen. When asked, Dr. Craigen suggested that the acceptance of his position was almost completely universal in the mathematics world. However, the debate that continues to go on would suggest otherwise.

So What?

The big question I have been asking myself after being involved in a variety of these discussions is why is there such a disagreement amongst mathematicians and mathematics education professors? I have yet to come to an answer for this question. The other larger implication to this debate is the teaching of math in schools and, the teaching of any subject in schools. Some people are very passionate about their beliefs on the teaching that should take place in classrooms. Anna Stokke’s CD Howe report recommended that there be an 80/20 split with 80% of the time dedicated to direct instruction and 20% of the time allocated to other teaching methodologies. For me, the bottom line to this, and the “so what” answer, is balance. I believe teachers should use a variety of teaching and assessment practices and not rely strictly on one approach. The reason for this is that students learn at different rates and attach meaning/develop schemas in memory in different ways. Therefore, if we present material in a variety of ways and provide students with a variety of ways for them to demonstrate what they know, we can maximize the success of all our students. Which, in my opinion, is the ultimate objective in our classrooms.

The Next Steps

The debate currently going on is nothing new. People are passionate about their particular areas of expertise. Parents are passionate about their children and only want what’s best for them. I’m sure, this will not be the last time this debate comes up. I only hope that we all can wade through the rhetoric and park our egos long enough to remember that we are trying to help kids. As my wife said “if only students loved math/learning as much as adults love debating how to teach.”

Thanks for reading,

Sean

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